Erasing the Stigma

By Spencer Barcenas

Erasing the Stigma

Mental illness is a huge modern day problem that not enough people are taking seriously but instead stigmatize it when it shouldn't be at all. Mental illness is a very common problem now-a-days, yet remains an extremely taboo subject, even to those who struggle with it. Most people who are ill are ashamed of being open about their diagnosis(es) out of fear of being stigmatized by those who aren't educated enough about the subject, especially among the younger generation with the Internet and all this information being so accessible. Some contribute to making the stigma worse by going so far as to fake a mental illness because they think it's cool or trendy to have one, they use it as a tactic to "fit in" with those who they think would be accepting or pity them because of their alleged illness. Mental illness is a very big and serious problem that's been around for centuries and we have to work together to educate those who aren't and erase the stigma around it.

Mental illness is more common than one might think. About 1 in 4 Americans experience some degree of illness at some point in their lives. Yet with that being said, it's still absolutely taboo for some. People are uncomfortable to speak up about it and start a conversation. I read an article by a woman whose manager had a mental break and went away to some unknown place and people started speculating as if he had some sort of contagious disease. Contrary to (surprisingly) popular belief, mental illness isn't contagious. Just speaking, looking at, or even breathing in the same vicinity as someone with schizophrenia, for example, does not mean you'll "catch" it or be associated with it. It it isn't blood-borne, nor air-borne, not the flu, not Ebola, not an STD. Most of the time, mental illnesses are genetic or circumstantial. An ill person cannot "infect" another with whatever illness they may have. On the other hand, too many think it can't happen to them.

Mental illness does not discriminate, no matter your age, gender, nationality, social status, etc. Anyone can be affected by it. I had my first diagnosis at age 12, but I knew long before then that I had OCD. I begged my mother for months on end to take me to a doctor only to be dismissed and told I didn't know what I was talking about given my age and that I'd "get over it". My mother is a very religious woman, a Catholic. She doesn't believe in mental illnesses, much less in treating them, she believes that if you pray hard enough, God will make it go away. Despite my age, I knew I was right, I knew in my little 12 year old heart that the things I felt and thoughts I had were not normal. At the time I was also struggling with self-harm issues and depression, but if my mother had such a hard time with OCD, there was no way I was going to tell her I was depressed. Eventually she caved and reluctantly took me to see a doctor and I walked out of the office with an official diagnosis, a prescription for Zoloft and an "I told you so" attitude. I was ready to feel like a normal person for the first time in who knows how long. My joy didn't last very long afterwards. Just when the medicine started kicking in after a few weeks and I started feeling better, my mother decided I was "cured" and made me stop taking the pills. She said the doctor didn't know what she was talking about and that if I really had OCD I needed a brain scan to diagnose it, not a survey. As a result I struggled with these issues for years and even tried committing suicide at one point until I saw a psychiatrist when I was 15 who gave me four more diagnoses in addition to the OCD. Mental illnesses should not be swept under the rug like they're nothing and should be talked about more openly without any shame because everyone deserves to be listened to and taken seriously.

Physical illnesses and ailments get progressively worse if not tended to and taken care of, just as mental illnesses do. Serious problems are kept secret out if fear of being stigmatized. A study in the UK of over 1,700 adults found that the most commonly held belief was that people with issues were dangerous, especially those with schizophrenia, alcoholism, and drug dependence (because yes, those last two are too considered illnesses and should be treated as such). Said study also found that most of the subjects believed that ill people were hard to talk to. In reality, someone with an illness can be high functioning and you wouldn't even know that they're sick just by talking to them because illnesses come in all forms and degrees of severity. It isn't as obvious as the stigma makes it seem. Usually people try to keep their illness on the down low to try to fit in and seem as neurotypical as possible. Especially those whose illnesses affect their behavior in a way that isn't obvious. I was taught that all mentally ill people should be seen on the same level as mentally disabled people, which are two completely different things, having Down syndrome is not in any way similar to having bipolar disorder. Teaching these kinds of things really stick with someone and mess them up, even now as I write this the memory of my mother threatening to ship me off to an institution when I was 5 and threw a tantrum remains so clear. Can you believe that? 5 years old and already getting stigmatized and threatened. She said only "crazy" people screamed and shouted like I did. It's no wonder I kept my mouth shut for so long about my issues to her. I was absolutely petrified she'd send me away and that I'd be locked up for the rest of my life.

Although I never exhibited any behavior that would deem me dangerous to others, I began to think I was a danger to myself and eventually did become a danger because of what my mother had taught me. Many also hold the stigma that mentally ill people will eventually "snap" and turn into the mass shooter you see on the news or the husband who strangled his wife in front of their kids and then shot himself. Typically, mental illness is portrayed in the media as murderers or cannibals and things of the like, thus making the stigma worse. This is often the only kind of representation mentally ill people receive and it's just not right. Usually because it makes good news or because a regular person with an illness isn't "exciting" enough for them to be newsworthy. Misinformation is hands-down the number one culprit behind stigmatization and it should be known that all cases and people are different, we should not all be lumped together.

Sadly there are people who will do anything for attention, among these is faking a mental illness. Stigmatization has become such a problem that even the people who are truly sick begin to believe they are faking. They believe they aren't "sick enough" to be taken seriously or be treated so they might fake a couple symptoms in addition to their original ones. On the other hand, there's people who seemingly don't have anything wrong with them psychologically and yet they feel the need to fake an illness. People who do this have a plethora of reasons to fake. They might see it as a trend or something they have to follow in order to fit in somewhere. The reason I say "seemingly wrong" is because going so far as to fake a mental illness, is an illness in itself. These kinds of people tend to tell anyone that'll listen about their supposed illness any chance they get. This broadens the stigma causing people to end up thinking that anyone who claims to have a mental illness is faking for attention. I knew a girl once who was the epitome of what I just described. I had only known her for two weeks when she told me she was bipolar and self-harmed, even went to far as to show me her wounds. I was shocked because anyone I knew, including myself, were very careful about hiding cuts and/or burn marks. I didn't say anything to her just because I assumed she just felt really comfortable with me and I didn't want to turn her away if she had serious issues. As time went on it became clearer to me and everyone she had befriended her that she was faking her claim of bipolarity. No one ever saw this girl have a bad day or be triggered by something and have a mood swing. Some were skeptical still that she was faking but it soon became painfully obvious and kind of scary. She began trying to get closer to me, acting, walking, talking, dressing like me. She may not have been bipolar, but she did have some sort of deep rooted mental problem going on that she should've sought help for instead of masquerading behind a fake bipolar diagnosis to fit in with me and my group of friends. Everyone called her out when they realized what was happening and she played victim. It's people like her who make things harder on the rest of us who really do need help. Mental illnesses aren't fun, having one isn't cool and having one shouldn't be seen as a trend.

Mental illnesses aren't all they're cracked up to be, they're not trendy, or cool, they're definitely not contagious. They shouldn't be such a hush-hush subject because many people need help as this is a growing problem. Too many who need help keep it all bottled up because they don't want to be ostracized and it just shouldn't be that way. Society makes it to where people are ashamed and scared to speak up about what they're feeling and the struggle they face every day. Faking a mental illness isn't something that should be taken lightly, it just makes things worse and harder for people to seek help. Stigma is a difficult thing to look past when dealing with someone with a mental illness, but slowly, we as a nation can work to teach those who don't know and erase the ever so damaging stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Read next: Never In the Cover of Night
Spencer Barcenas
See all posts by Spencer Barcenas